A FORMER Athelstaneford Primary School pupil, who dreamt of representing his country on the rugby field, has captained a South American country in their first-ever competitive match.

Mark Camburn fell in love with Bolivia nearly 20 years ago after first visiting the country as a backpacker.

However, it was only when he returned in 2007 that the rugby bug started to spread, with Mark going on to captain his adopted home in their first-ever test against Paraguay last year.

He said: “It was unbelievable.

“As any young lad growing up playing rugby, of course I dreamed of playing international rugby one day – I thought for Scotland!

“But at 36, I thought that dream had passed me by!

“Even at the start of last year, I had no idea it would be possible, and was thinking last year would probably be my last year playing.

“When I got asked to go along to the first camp, I thought I’d give it a shot, but never thought I’d be picked to play for the national team, let alone asked to be their first captain.

“I love Bolivia and am so proud to live here and call it my home.

“Running out on to the pitch in that first test match is a moment I will remember proudly for the rest of my life!”

Bolivia, which has a population roughly double that of Scotland, lost 107-0 to Paraguay in their opening match but will play again against their South American neighbours and Peru later this year.

Even travelling to the match proved a challenge, with a 44-hour round trip by bus.

Mark, who grew up at Newmains Holdings, near Drem, described the defeat as “an eye-opener”.

He said: “Paraguay have a long history with rugby, and their national team regularly plays against the best teams in the region.

“We held our own for 20 minutes, but then got overpowered and out-skilled.

“But it was still a great experience, and makes us want to get better and go again.”

The former North Berwick High School pupil visited Bolivia as a teenage backpacker before going on to study Latin American development studies at Portsmouth University.

As part of his degree, he went back to Bolivia to volunteer for a year with a local non-governmental organisation.

After completing his degree, he spent five years in the country before returning to Scotland and starting a job with SCIAF (Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund).

Four years ago, he returned to Bolivia, where he now lives with his wife Claudia, who is from Nicaragua, 15-year-old son Struan, who also previously attended Athelstaneford Primary School, and six-month-old son Elliott.

The 37-year-old, who still works for SCIAF, said: “I didn’t know they played rugby here when I first came here.

“I only found out about it in 2007 when I heard about a tournament that was being played in the city where I live, Santa Cruz. At the tournament I got talking to the guys from Santa Cruz Rugby Club (SCRC) and started training with them.

“I have played for SCRC now for 12 years. When I started, there were only two teams in the whole country, both in Santa Cruz.

“There was a mix of foreigners (mainly Argentinians) and Bolivians playing. There was no national league, no rugby federation, and no national team.

“Gradually the sport has grown, and there are now around 12 teams across the country (four in Santa Cruz, three in Cochabamba, one in La Paz, three in Tarija and one in Yacuiba).

“The national federation was set up several years ago, and we have played a national league for the last four years – my team has won the last three national titles. It still remains a big challenge playing here.

“There is no financial support for teams and we have to travel large distances to play.

“A match against La Paz, for example, involves a 16-hour bus journey just to get there, and going from 400 metres above sea level up to 3,500 metres above sea level, which is quite a challenge!”

The second row told Courier Sport that rugby was growing in Bolivia, with more teams potentially joining the national league.

At a national level, Bolivia hope to take part in the South America C tournament, against countries including El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, with plans for a junior 15s national side and further developing the men’s and women’s 7s teams.

Mark added: “The distances and changes in altitude and climate make playing the national league very challenging, and bringing together the national team also challenging.

“Furthermore, with no financial support, players have to pay their own way, funding travel costs, kit, paying for pitches, etc.

“In one of the poorest countries in the region, this makes things very difficult.

“Then we have a lack of trained coaches at all levels and a lack of trained referees.

“Rugby in Bolivia very much depends on lots of volunteers giving up their time to play, coach, referee, and generally support the sport.”

To support the team, go to gofundme.com/f/fund-the-bolivian-national-rugby-team